So very often in discussing matters of theological importance the common complaint against the Orthodox distinction between essence and energy raises its head. The claim comes in a variety of forms but usually the gist is that this is a “later development” read back into earlier theological works. If I think that they are present in these earlier works, I am essentially believing a fiction, for it just ain’t so, or so I am often told. This was a common refrain back on Pontifications.
Needless to say I disagree. What I wish to do here is some work to put that claim to rest. If some form of a distinction between essence and energy can be found, say among the Platonists, this makes it all the more unlikely that the distinction is a product of later Palamitic “developments.”
Plato argues for instance that objects are distinguished by opposition. Hot and cold are all and only what they are and never their opposite. The problem is that at times these two powers can be perceived to mix as when something is tepid or when ice melts.
“So the hot is something other than fire, and the cold is something other than snow?-Yes.” Phaedo 103d
If the hot and the cold are different than their instances, it seems absurd to say that fire for example isn’t genuinely hot. There must be something else related to the hot in the fire that makes the fire hot.
“It is true then about some of these things that not only the Form itself deserves its own name for all time, but there is something else that is not the Form but has its character whenever it exists.” Phaedo 103e
This other thing is an extension of the form’s causal power, for this is what forms are. They are not abstract entities for abstract entities cause nothing. It is a great mistake to take Platonic forms as some other worldly object divorced from experience. Forms are qualities, properties or whatever name you like, it matters not, for forms are the causes of things in Plato’s estimation.
What Plato thinks occurs in physical objects is that the causal power of various forms extend themselves and they reach an equilibrium or one power via its extension drives out the other.
“Now it seems to me that not only Tallness itself is never willing to be tall and short at the same time, but also that the tallness in us will never admit the short or be overcome, but one of two things happens: either it flees and retreats whenever its opposite, the short, approaches, or it is destroyed by its approach. It is not willing to endure and admit shortness and be other than it was, whereas I admit and endure shortness and still remain the same person and am this short man. But Tallness, being tall, cannot venture to be small. In the same way, the short in us is unwilling to become or to be tall ever, nor does any other of the opposites become or be its opposite while still being what it was; either it goes away or is destroyed when that happens.” Phaedo 102d-103a.
The power or form itself is never driven out for this is to confuse the form with its activity. The form itself is beyond the sensible qualities it gives rise to.
“In a power I cannot see any color or shape or similar mark such as those on which in many other cases I fix my eyes in discriminating in my thought one thing from another. But in the case of a power I look to one thing only-that to which it is related and what it effects, and it is in this way that I come to call each of them a power…” Republic 477c-d.
The effects of a given power since they preserve in part the power of their cause act as indications of the power’s causal activity. But effects do not fully preserve the force of their originating power. If they did, there would be no way to distinguish the cause from the effect. You would have another instance of the cause if effects preserved fully the power of the cause. Causes then are distinguished from their effects through the opposition of metaphysical and causal deficiency. (There is always more power in the cause than the effect.) Effects then function as signs of their causes, leading reason back to the underlying nature or power that is giving off the sign.
“Indeed, the opposite is true of them-an image cannot remain an image if it presents all the details of what it represents.” Cratylus 432b
So for Plato, the body qua tool of soul is a sign of the soul since by it the soul communicates and gestures. More directly put, the body is the sign of the soul’s causal power. Strictly speaking, for Plato, the soul is not in the body, but rather the other way around, the body is in the soul. The soul acts qua power on matter to form body, to bring about a living organism, something whose activity is to live.
“Thus some people say that the body is the tomb of the soul, on the grounds that it is entombed in its present life, while others say that it is correctly called ‘a sign’ because the soul signifies whatever it wants to signify by means of the body.” Cratylus, 400c.
So for the human being, the soul, which is itself a power grasps the signs of other objects by its various faculties or powers. Perception then for Plato is not a passive matter. It is not something we undergo, but an activity we engage in.
“Shall we say that powers are a class of entities by virtue of which we and all other things are able to do what we do or they are able to do? I mean that sight and hearing, for example are powers…” Republic 477cff.
The mistake that most people make concerning signs is they confuse them with the power that produced them in the first place. They confuse the image with the reality where the image is a mere extension of the causal force.
“Now all of the above are among the auxiliary causes employed in the service of the god as he does his utmost to bring to completion the character of what is most excellent. But because they make things cold or hot, compact or disperse them, and produce all sorts of similar effects, most people regard them not as auxiliary causes, but as the actual causes of all things.” Timaeus 46c-d.
Here I think it is pretty obvious a distinction between the nature or essence and its image, which is nothing other than its activity or energy. It is quite evident in say, Plotinus.
“For every existent has an Act which is in its likeness: as long as the one exists, so does the other; yet while the original is stationary the activity reaches forth, in some things over a wide range, in others less far. There are weak and faint activities, and there are some, even, that do not appear; but there are also things whose activities are great and far-going; in the case of these the activity must be thought of as being lodged, both in the active and powerful source and in the point at which it settles.” Enneads 4.5.7
Plotinus carries on the tradition by distinguishing two activities of a given essence-the inward and the outward.
“But how from amid perfect rest can an Act arise? There is in everything the Act of the Essence and the Act going out from the Essence: the first Act is the thing itself in its realized identity, the second Act is an inevitably following outgoing from the first, an emanation distinct from the thing itself.” Enneads 5.4.2
As with Plato, the sign, image or activity discloses the nature of the underlying and hidden power. The idea is quite simple, really. Causes are known by their effects.
“The act reveals the power, a power hidden, and we might almost say obliterated or nonexistent, unless at some moment it became effective: in the world as it is, the richness of the outer stirs us all to the wonder of the inner whose greatness is displayed in acts so splendid.” Enneads 4.8.5
To be sure, this isn’t exactly the idea that the God-bearing Fathers have in mind. But it is the case that the distinction is present long before they arrived and is modified by them to make it suitable for Christian theology, specifically by removing the opposition between things-distinction doesn’t imply contradiction for in Christ the two natures and two wills are distringuished but not opposed. And part of the problem during say the Arian controversy is for example with the later Arians like Eunomius, he conceives of effects as cut off and separate entities from their source. So if the Son is the power of God, then he must be a separate individual entity for essences are absolutely simple objects permitting no plurality. Gregory of Nyssa on the other hand does not view things this way. Plurality in the essence does not compromise the integrity of the essence.
“As far as I can see, this indicates that Gregory’s concept of divine activity may be characterized as follows: (1) the activity is closely united with the entity that executes it. It springs from an inherent power of its being. (2) The activity is not some separate reality occuring ‘between’ the cause and the effect. (3) The activity does not terminate at the moment an external result is accomplished, but resides in the result as the imprint of the art of the maker.” Torstein Tollefsen, “Essence and Activity (energia) In eunomius and St. Gregory of Nyssa,” in Gregory of Nyssa: Contra Eunomium II, 2007, p. 440.
Consequently for Saint Gregory, there is nothing between the Father and the Son for they are of one essence and because relations only occur between beings or activities. So the persons are not relations. To think of a relation qua essence between the two or to think of them as relations of the essence, is to confuse essence with activity or be-ing, where the latter term denotes a verb. This is why we insist that God is not being or God is beyond being.
So, I am not making things up when I claim that the Palamite distinction between essence and energies is nothing other than what the God-bearing Fathers before Palamas taught.
“Firstly, I think it could be fairly said that Gregory of Nyssa’s doctrine of energia is well integrated within his Christian system and owes nothing to a Eunomian concept. Secondly, the Palamitic concept of energia is as dynamic as the one we find in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa. Finally, when Palamas appeals to the tradition for his concept of energia, it strikes me that he does not have to distort the thought of Gregory in order to make the idea of energia useful for his own purposes. There is, I think, a positive link between the two Gregories, and what is bizarre is that some modern scholars have missed the real import of Palamas’ theology.” Torstein Tollefsen, “Essence and Activity (Energia) In Eunomius and St. Gregory of Nyssa,” in Greogry of Nyssa: Contra Eunomium II, 2007, p. 442